Ed Miliband leaves after visiting a newly-built council housing complex in Lincoln on May 21, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ed Miliband has a fistful of policies. Now he needs to work on his personal brand

Labour's preoccupation with policy too often resembles a displacement activity to avoid the thornier issues of leadership and economic competence.

For years the most frequent complaint about Ed Miliband was that he had no policies. Labour activists spoke of being sent “naked on to the doorstep”. Commentators questioned whether anything would emerge from Jon Cruddas’s policy review other than thoughtful ruminations on the state of England.

They cannot complain now. The “blank page” that Miliband once referred to has not so much been filled as flooded. In the past nine months he has pledged to freeze energy prices, to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, to abolish the “bedroom tax”, to reintroduce the 50p tax rate, to create two new banks, to devolve £20bn of funding to city regions, to cap rent increases and, most recently, to link the minimum wage to median earnings. Having once been accused of having vision but no “retail offer”, the Labour leader quips to friends that he is now accused of having a retail offer but no vision.

If Labour endures a poor result on 22 May, becoming the first major opposition party not to win the European elections since 1984, Miliband’s instinct will be to expand, not shrink, the offer. “When Ed’s back is against the wall he does bold and radical things,” notes one shadow cabinet minister. In July 2011, after one of the worst months of his leadership, he went to war with Rupert Murdoch. In September 2013, after a similarly torrid period, he pledged to freeze energy prices. On everything from tuition fees and House of Lords reform to rail policy, one is told: “Ed wants a radical offer.”

To the Labour leader’s left, activists will urge him to be bolder still, noting majority public support for the renationalisation of the privatised utilities, a compulsory living wage and a 75 per cent tax rate. From his right, he will be told to guarantee an EU referendum and to toughen his stance on immigration and welfare. Few will question whether more policy is the solution.

The paradox for those who advocated a radical prospectus as the antidote to Labour’s woes is that the party’s poll lead has fallen, not risen, over this period, to the point where it is non-existent in some surveys. The surprise is that this should be surprising: most voters notice few, if any, announcements. Far more crucial in shaping preferences is the level of economic optimism and the overall perception of parties and their leaders. With the return of growth, it was inevitable that the Tories would begin to recover lost ground.

When asked about the outcome of the next general election, senior Labour figures often point out they are attempting to achieve something that has rarely been done: returning to government after just one term in opposition. Few point out they are also attempting to achieve something that has never been done: winning an election while trailing on economic management and on leadership. For months, Tory optimists and Labour pessimists cited this as evidence that Labour’s lead would eventually crumble. After recent polls, they are claiming vindication. “We’ve been defying gravity and now we’re falling to earth,” one Labour MP tells me. If Labour is to avoid defeat in 2015 (an outcome that some members of the shadow cabinet now regard as likely), its salvation will not lie in policy alone.

Shortly after becoming leader, Miliband instituted a “no huskies” rule, in reference to the stunts that David Cameron performed to introduce himself to voters. His reluctance was understandable. As William Hague’s ill-fated visit to the Notting Hill Carnival proved, such acts can hinder leaders more than they help them. But Labour should still devote more time to considering how better to project Miliband’s personal brand.

With the Tories now 14 points ahead on managing the economy (the highest figure since the formation of the coalition) and even George Osborne’s personal ratings back in the black, Labour strategists draw comfort from their lead as the party best placed to raise living standards. It is an advantage that may not last. Labour MPs are already questioning how to respond to a pre-election “cost of living” Budget from Osborne, with a cut in the basic rate of tax as its centrepiece. One Conservative points out to me: “Labour can moan about living standards, but we can act.”

As the Tories plot to colonise the Labour Party’s preferred battleground, the opposition needs to be wary of ceding the territory of economic competence. By promising to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament and to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP, Labour has gone further than most think in binding itself to fiscal rectitude.

But as one self-described shadow cabinet “hawk” laments: “No one knows about it.” Another MP tells me: “We need to do more to show we care as much about saving money as we do about spending it; as much about creating wealth as we do about distributing it.” This is less a policy than a state of mind.

The left’s preoccupation with policy reflects a sincere desire to attain power to improve the country, rather than merely for its own sake. Yet too often it resembles a displacement activity to avoid the thornier issues of leadership and economic competence. If Labour is to win the chance to govern, it needs to worry about policy a little less and about brand a little more.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.